Prayer and the Integration of the Psychic Elements

Frithjof Schuon

Prayer in the most usual sense of the term is a practice that appears to imply an anthropomorphic and sentimental point of view: anthropomorphic because it seems to attribute to God a temporal nature and a human understanding, and sentimental because it expresses itself readily in forms pertaining to feeling. Now it is legitimate and even necessary to conceive of the Divinity in a more or less personified aspect, since it really includes such an aspect in relation to us; moreover, by virtue of this same point of view, the standpoint of man can be affirmed without difficulty in ways that are strictly human.

Thus conceived, prayer by no means implies by definition the conception of a God arbitrarily humanized and divested of His infinite transcendence, any more than it implies the presence in man of a purely sentimental disposition. In a general way it is too often forgotten that sentiment as such is not to be identified with its deviations but that it is on the contrary a normal psychic fact, which is capable of playing a positive role in spirituality; the mere fact that in praying man makes use of all his inward faculties in striving toward God, and consequently also of his natural sentimentality, which he cannot abolish or treat as non-existent, in no way means that feeling should be taken as an end in itself or that it thus should entail a more or less individualistic alteration of doctrinal truths. Prayer could never be contrary to the purest intellectuality; without contradicting any transcendent truth, prayer has its reason for being in the existence of the human “I”, which, since it exists, must be channeled toward its ultimate sufficient reason. In other words, the individual as such never ceases to be “I”, and since prayer is the spiritual act of the “I”, it must be practiced as long as the individual exists, that is, to the extent that he maintains the idea of the ego. Man’s attitude in prayer must in some sense remain egocentric by definition; in metaphysical meditation, on the contrary, man places himself symbolically at the “standpoint” of the nature of things.

On the other hand, when it is said that forms are supports, it must never be forgotten that a support, in order to be such, must be entirely what it is in itself, and that it must not and cannot be a “part” of what it must transmit, just as a light cannot be the means for reflecting another light; thus prayer must always remain a conversation with God or an appeal addressed to Him, and it is only on condition that prayer be first entirely what it is in its most immediate possibility—namely, the translation and expression of an individual intention—that it can serve as a support for intellections transcending the individual plane. By this we mean that prayer cannot be replaced by impersonal and abstract meditation, for the immediate objectives of the two are different; but this is not to say that meditation cannot be integrated, in suitable ways, into prayer, or that the formulas of revealed prayers do not include a universal meaning.

All that we have just said makes it easier to understand why there is no need to invoke at every turn the opposition between reason and sentiment; if the relatively lower psychic faculties can form an obstacle to the activity of reason, the seat of theoretical knowledge, reason itself constitutes no less an obstacle once effective knowledge is at issue; for it is then the whole mental faculty as such that can become an obstacle, reason being only the most direct reflection of the Intellect, which is beyond all cerebral contingencies.


The Intellect, since it is universal in essence, necessarily penetrates the entire being and embraces all its constituent elements; for to exist is to know, and every aspect of our existence is a state of knowing or—in relation to absolute Knowledge—a state of ignorance. If it is true that reason is the central mirror of the Intellect, whose organ is the subtle heart, the other faculties are nonetheless also planes of manifestation for the Intellect; the individual being cannot be reintegrated into the Absolute without all his faculties participating in due measure in the process. Spiritual knowledge, far from opposing any particular mode of conformity or participation, on the contrary brings into play all that we are, hence all the constituent elements, psychic and even physical, of our being, for nothing positive can be excluded from the process of transmutation; nothing can be destroyed, and therefore the psychic faculties or energies that form a part of our reality, and whose existence must have a meaning for us, have to be determined and channeled by the same governing Idea that determines and transforms thought. But this cannot be done without first placing oneself on the very level of the psychic faculties: it is not enough to consider these faculties by means of reason and in a theoretical light; one must realize the Idea, to the extent this is possible, on the plane of these faculties, by universalizing them as it were in virtue of the different symbolisms corresponding to them. Man must transpose onto a higher plane all the positive reactions that the surrounding reality provokes in him, remembering divine Realities through sensible things; it could also be said that if spiritual things have to be humanized in some way, then conversely human things have to be spiritualized; the first symbolic mode envelops Truth, and the second reveals it.

We have seen that the very existence of individual or psychic elements is a sufficient reason for taking them into consideration and that we must necessarily do so in a way that is not purely negative, since these elements are none other than ourselves insofar as we are individuals; if we were able, such as we are, to be absolutely spiritual—an obviously contradictory supposition—we would be identical with the divine Principle, and we would not have to be delivered from anything. To be more precise, we may add that the man who through ignorance or theoretical preconceptions neglects to integrate the psychic elements of his personality into his spiritual attitude possesses these elements nonetheless, whether he allows them to wander about at will, side by side with theoretical conceptions and in contradiction to them, or represses them, so that they slumber in his subconscious as more or less latent obstacles. In any spiritual realization it is important that a man not be fixed, so to speak, within one restricted area of his ego; on the contrary, all his possibilities must be awakened, recapitulated, and channeled in accordance with their respective natures, for man is all that constitutes him; his faculties are interrelated. It is not possible to open the intelligence to the Divine without ennobling the psychic and even physical being; there is no spirituality without greatness and without beauty.

We shall illustrate the foregoing considerations by the following example: in too many cases the psychological potentiality of childhood never achieves its normal flowering; the necessary manifestation of this possibility is checked—most often by the misdeeds of school education—and subsists as though stifled or crushed, or like a shrunken and hardened kernel, throughout the further development of the individual; from this results a psychic imbalance, which will show itself on the one hand by the apparent absence of the childlike element, and on the other by childish reactions such as are not undergone by the balanced man, whose virile possibility will have integrated his childlike possibility, the latter being as it were the background of the former. Virility—virtus—is always an aspect and a fact of equilibrium; the person who is only adult, that is, adult to the exclusion of any childlike element, is so only imperfectly and as it were through an inability to remain a child; now an incapacity is never a superiority. The state of childhood must be transcended by integration, by “digestion” if one may so express it, and this necessity is already indicated by the fact that there is a perfect continuity between different ages; this means that the individual must at every age make use of all the positive contents of the preceding ages, and that he will then respond to events not in a way strictly dependent on his age, but with complete balance, uniting for example the spontaneity of youth with the reflectiveness of maturity; in other words, he will possess his temporal “self” in its integral state; every positive attitude, be it childlike or other, is necessary and precious.

Reason, the seat of theoretical knowledge, is too abstract a substance to represent the “I” by itself alone; it is therefore necessary that feeling and desire, that is, what is most strictly “I”, be transmuted by the Idea. But this transmutation introduces a most important principle that must never be lost sight of: the psychic faculty as such—which is a limitation—must be distinguished from its possible contents; these contents translate the Idea in their own way and are necessary to a man’s psychological and physical equilibrium. Sentiment is more remote from pure knowledge than reason; however, the natural impulses of sentiment are less harmful to intellectuality—supposing they are such in themselves—than are rational conceptions; these, when taken too literally in the absence of intellectual intuition, can paralyze the possibilities of understanding, whereas sentiment is neutral in this respect.

Psychic conformity based on the symbolism of sentiment or desire is possible, however, only on condition of a rational conformity, that is, a sufficient theoretical knowledge on the one hand and a conformity of action on the other; and this must be so because the most clearly individual elements can have their sufficient reason and hence their ideal determination only through the Intellect, and also because these elements are substantially dependent on the physical world where action takes place. Through the Idea the natural emotions are, on the one hand, reduced to proportions that correspond to the individual’s psychic equilibrium and, on the other hand, they are endowed with a spiritual essence; through action, or by the participation of action in the Idea—hence through action which is symbolic and which has become a ritual, so to speak—the emotions receive as it were a new substance.


For man as such, the question of the divine Reality can be stated thus: if other individuals—or objects such as food—possess an immediately tangible and empirically incontestable reality, so that it is perfectly natural to speak to someone else or to partake of food, then God, who is the ultimate Prototype of all things, possesses a reality that is incommensurable in relation to the reality that surrounds us and upon which we live. Now if it is logical to talk to people or to eat food because both of these are “real”, it is all the more logical—or less illusory—to speak to God, who is the infinite Cause of all good, and to live on His Word, which is the infinite Essence of all nourishment.

We said earlier that in prayer God is conceived, as it were automatically, as personal: indeed it is in the nature of things for God to reveal Himself under a more or less human aspect once He enters into contact with man, for otherwise there would be no possible meeting point between God and the individual; but this human aspect does not pertain to the Divinity in itself, any more than a color pertains to light. God hears our prayers and replies to them, while He Himself, needless to say, undergoes no change at all. Our prayers cannot penetrate God, since they are nothing before Him. The divine replies are so many effects of absolute Plenitude; it is we, the reflections, who are affected by the universal Cause, and not inversely. “Before” we formulated our prayers, the divine replies “were” in eternity; God is for us the eternal, omnipresent Response, and prayer can have no other function than to eliminate all that separates us from this Response, which is inexhaustible.

Originally published as a chapter of The Eye of the Heart, this text was more recently made available in the anthology Prayer Fashions Man. Republished here with thanks to World Wisdom Books.